Spool’s Out: The Best Tapes Of 2019 With Tristan Bath

Tristan Bath brings another year of music released on cassette tape to a close, and picks 2019’s 10 best tapes, and the year’s best tape label

This is now the sixth occasion I’ve put together one of these end-of-year cassette tape roundups. That means when this thing started, David Cameron wasn’t only Prime Minister, but the pig thing hadn’t even come to light yet. Yeezus wasn’t even a year old yet, and its creator was still somewhat liked. The word ‘cassette player’ had even been removed from the Oxford English Dictionary in 2011 too. Generally, the future lay ahead of us, and we had so much to look forward to. Yet with the help of this column – and of course many thousands and thousands of eager young artists with an inexplicable love for arguably the most beautifully useless of portable music formats – cassette sales in 2019 are higher again than they were last year, and progress has been kept thankfully at bay.

Not one six month period since that first roundup of 2013’s best tape releases has there not been a random local news or small-time online article go viral on the subject of the so-called ‘tape revival’, but this year the phenomenon broke fresh ground with a story going around that a gamma ferric oxide shortage was causing delays in production, and the much cassette pun game even hitting the Guardian website itself with Zoe Wood’s article, Back in the loop: why cassette tapes became fashionable again.

It’s never really been about the format though has it? It’s always been just more of a MacGuffin to get us digging through piles of strange and wonderful underground releases, pushing boundaries forward and trickling ideas upwards and outwards into the artistic landscape for other (more successful and mainstream mostly) artists to get inspiration from. In that regard, 2019 is a vintage year for this column. I’ve done the usual and picked ten tapes from the many and reviewed them in no order below. First though, for more on why music releases on cassette tape remains so very relevant and energised in 2019 (the year Disney launched a streaming service and Elon Musk launched his Cyber Truck), let’s take a look at my pick for…

Tape Label of the Year, 2019

Indonesia today makes sense as a breeding ground for something new. A new generation of young artists are energised, and it’s only in recent years that any contemporary art scene of any note has existed in the sprawling nation of islands. Hasana Editions is a label run from the city of Bandung by Indonesian artist Duto Hardono, putting out a small handful of long considered, top quality, impeccably designed, and perfectly curated cassette tapes. The label’s output to date comprises a mere 9 tapes – four released in 2018, and five this year – but in total the project is a shining example of the countless artistically and sonically fruitful things going on far outside of the mainstream remain. The label itself is an argument for why the tape scene is so very vital, bringing together artists from across the world under the inspiration of crafting something entirely new, yet unshackled from the various confines of digitalism and vinyl to create physical objects of great beauty along the way.

This year’s releases included an impeccable tape of user-friendly rhythmic experiments by Australian percussionist Will Guthrie, plus spoken word and structured noise from Singaporean performer Bani Haykal – slipping into the vacant cracks between Tom Waits at his most Brechtian, Whitehouse at their most Waitsian, and Senyawa on his brilliant album This Is You Glitching My Death. Also put to tape was a session of absolutely unhurried minimalism from Düsseldorf’s Miki Yui, plus London-based sound artist Kate Carr’s chilling exploration of climate change through deconstructed field recordings made at a busy intersection during the capital’s record-breaking heatwave. Each one of these editions is beautifully numbered and coloured in fallow yellow or computer grey too, designed lovingly by Hardono. It’s ironic I know, but somewhere inside these cassettes lie sounds of the future.

Tapes of the Year, 2019 (in no order)

Renato Grieco comes from Naples – but you’d never ever get any of that from his music. Hell, I could’ve bought that this stuff doesn’t even come from planet Earth if it said so on the J-card. This double cassette of emanations released under the pseudonym kNN stems from Grieco’s work utilizing magnetic tapes. Sounds are collaged and cut and looped and sewn together. To put it more descriptively perhaps, these sounds are pondered upon and reimagined. The sidelong montages are a beautiful ferromagnetic mess, revealing no longform narrative, but rather revealing (or perhaps creating) fresh details inside every sound – from the speed variation wheezing of rushing water, to the interference hum in what sounds like a car ride. Similar to the work of North Italian Carlo Giustini (covered previously in this column), kNN uses magnetic tape like an infra-red lens, revealing a parallel cosmos of sound from the mundane hum of everyday life.

Torontonoian multimedia artist Brigitte Bardon’t (aka Kristel Jax) makes music in a variety of ways, from haunting noise pop to drone improv. Her debut tape dives headfirst into concrète radio signal collage, taking inspiration from cut-uppers and recording radio signals picked up at a single time and place per track. Recorded over the course of five years in twelve different cities, these Radio Songs manage to truly capture something of their time and place. The methodology varies throughout too, with Jax sometimes recording in one shot, other times mixing radio bits and field sounds together after the fact, or, as on the epic opening track ‘Is That All There Is?’ recorded Winnipeg, layering and processing bits and pieces into an entirely new dream gumbo of radio snippets.

Analogue radio (like analogue tape) might seem like an outdated format, but the ephemeral and spontaneous nature of the medium says so much about these places, and it’s easy for young city folk like myself to forget billions of people a day drive around in cars blaring AM and FM radio signals, just as we did decades back. Sevierville, Tennessee; Cobourg, Ontario; Durham, North Carolina; these are the kinds of places where most of us live frankly, and this is how they largely sound and feel. It’s perhaps far from Brigitte Bardon’t’s goal, but her Radio Songs tell the truth in a way few modern musicians do.

Byron Westbrook produced some incredibly refined electronic music in recent years, summoning spellbinding alien textures into abstract rhythms and clouds of trippy synaesthetic colour. Voice Damage is a slight departure though, presenting us with two 21-minute improvisations. "Nearly all of my recorded music is pieced together from organised edits of various improvisations of some sort," explains Westbrook. In 2016 however, the artist found himself with a take that "felt distinguished in its raw form, mistakes and all." 18 months later, a second such improvisation struck as intrinsically consummate in its raw form. "It seemed that a work had completed itself," as he puts it. The result is, for want of a better term, fucking glorious.

Both pieces take on something of a raga-like form, setting a meek drone section in motion (there are even some pretty tambura-like tones on offer) while Westbrook instinctively rides a roller coaster of noise generators and rippled synthesizer screeches. The first side features a languid single percussive tone beating slowly behind the action, cycling over its droney bed for infinity. Westbrook’s all the while reaching mini climaxes on his abstract set of electric leads, sounding like whistling wires or grumbling amplifiers before hitting some outright shredding during a face-melting final act. Side two is entirely beatless, but no less compelling, with Westbrook swatting his way through siren-like screeches until settling on beautifully quivering tentacles of synth portmanto. Sometimes a musician just has a perfect moment of serendipity with their instrument, and it all just comes together; like peering into the sky to see rays of pink and orange sunset scattered across a refracting atmosphere for but a few blissful minutes.

The music of Rojin Sharafi is uniquely mangled by its own logic. The young musician (born in Tehran, currently based in Vienna) plays by no known rules and sculpts by no known methods. When I saw her play live last year, she was throwing ping pong balls across a table next to a malfunctioning tube television. Even with experimental sounds more rampant than ever in the modern musical diet, the truly unexpected seems harder to find. And there’s no better way to describe what Sharafi’s peddling on here debut tape for Sote’s brilliant Zabte Sote imprint (a label "focusing on experimental electronic music by Iranian composers") than as ‘the unexpected’.

The artist has discussed her various approaches to time and narrative, citing convoluted storylines, flashback/flashforward, plus fluid, frozen, and solid time as key compositional tools in her arsenal. All of this isn’t to say that drama and crescendo don’t play their role – check out the battling peaks and troughs of ‘Sayonara’ or the Autechre-esque rush of beats on ‘The Last Urn Broke’ – but Sharafi’s skirting a place where such concepts have little role to play. This is one of the most ecstatic and fiercely original hours of music you’ll come across in 2019.

Hailing from Berdsk, a town just south of Novosibirsk in south Siberia, Egor Klochikhin is a musician who’s previously made a distinct point out of utilising ‘tape wobble’ to evoke a mixture of nostalgia and a purposefully oneiric tone to his folk-influenced home recordings. Four years after his gorgeous Diafilms tape for Moscow-based imprint Klammklang, Klochikhin brings his Foresteppe moniker back to the label for a vaster, deeper, and darker feeling work in the form of Karaul. The tape format itself as a device for capturing and shaping sound remains present, but fleshed out with a broad palette of industrial thuds, post-club bass whirrs, toy pianos, and horns.

The name of the set refers to mundane guard duty, and the recordings were purportedly made with Klochikhin’s mandatory military service with the Strategic Missile Forces in mind – "a rather traumatic experience commonly spread among many Russian young men". The various emotions of such duty, from a lack of control over one’s destiny, to a sense of impending doom, to the sheer vast boredom and emptiness of guard duty, infects the music. Foresteppe is standing guard over some fresh ground between deconstructionist electronics and forlorn isolated folk here, and the result is an incredibly potent experience that holds up on return trips.

With their second release and first full-length, YATTA storms into view as a key figure in a current evolution in the overlapping lexicons of digipoetry, electronic montage, and musical improvisation. Similar to the likes of Klein or Eartheater, echoes of R&B pop and noise music thrive within perplexing musique concrète structures. This music owes as much to Sonic Youth’s Confusion is Sex as it does Erykah Badu, joining the aforementioned generation of musicians in pioneering fresh ways of exploring rich cultural and personal themes in illogical sonic shapes.

The Sierra Leonean-American YATTA plots a route through WAHALA like an art exhibition, presenting each piece as a collection of thoughts sewn together in a colourful fashion. It’s certainly never dull, and while it never truly slips into anything resembling a banger or poppy tune, it fires out enough bassy thuds and sketched out beats (as on ‘Rollin’) to keep listeners hypnotised. Voices also flood the record, with YATTA’s words variably fired through cyborgian effects, spiritualized incantations, and theatrical readings, often taking the form of memorable and potent one-liners. They do a brilliant job of pointing to the heart of YATTA’s chosen themes in limited space; in this case themes of "being black, being trans, and being African on foreign land", as YATTA describes. It’s best typified by two searing lines that overlap on the outward crawl of ‘Cowboys’: "Cowboys are black, and techno is too/

Artsy black girls are like Pokémon, gotta catch ‘em all."

While chaos is something of an aesthetic choice here, disintegrating the material into a dreamy, psychedelic, and often anti-musical potpourri of thoughts, this only strengthens its vibe and message. It’s like climbing inside YATTA’s mind, words and ideas butting up against each other, whispered melodies lingering unfinished between a sonic mulch of processed samples. ‘I Will Definitely Feel Good’ is perhaps the most uplifting moment on a record stuck between hope, despair, humour, and anger. YATTA’s stacked vocals delicately wrap around themselves, repeating the song’s title like a quiet prayer.

João Renato Orecchia Zúñiga seems a restless and instinctive kind of musician. He’s an autodidact, a sonic experimenter, and a multimedia artist – plus was born in New York City to a Peruvian mother and Italian father if that weren’t enough. Variously playing guitar in 1990s London and composing iMac electronics in 2000s Berlin, Orecchia’s Between Revelations tape is inspired by Johannesburg, a city to which he relocated back in 2005. That evocative title, along with where the music was made, should give you some basic idea about the headspace Orecchia’s inhabiting.

Semblances of a harp sample cower beneath dropping noise bombs on ‘Resonant Travels’, stumbling hand claps, shakers, and 8bit basslines somehow fall into line around a beat on ‘Random Acts’, while ‘Boredoms’ is a lunar eclipse of slowly phasing synth yearns interlocking. Orecchia’s soundworld is as multifaceted and chaotic as his own summarised bio above, flailing in all kinds of directions, but always keeping one foot firmly grounded in pure sonic experimentation. Penultimate track ‘Not Unpleasant Distractions’ shows off a kind of acid-techno-gone-awry vibe Orecchia could well have at his fingertips, yet deceptively simplistic closer ‘A Calm Man’ seems to summarise their MO best. For ten minutes the artist fiddles with and layers and processes a simple looped melodic phrase, morphing a luscious coda into a mutant vibration.

Take a few different MCs and producers (some operating ‘under cover’), have them fire out a wealth of material, stick them on a mixtape crediting one label but released by another, and we could all end up a bit confused. Just chill though, you’re hanging out with I Jahbar & Friends now. Created somewhere in the digital space in between a group of MCs working out of Spanish Town on Jamaica, plus producers on Bristol’s Bokeh Versions and Los Angeles’ Duppy Gun labels, the main thing you should know is that this bit of tape is Future Dancehall of the very highest order.

The production here is a trippy mix of MIDI bass, bitcrushed keyboards, and grinding G Funk timbres, sculpted into all kinds of illogical shapes you can dance to. Highlight tune ‘Weed Patrol’ is a spluttering digi-dancehall riddim with keyboard flutes improvised into chord stabs in one ear, while MIDI steel drums almost randomly jam along in the other. All the while I Jahbar, the de facto lead vocalist of Duppy Gun (a label started by Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras) spits and toasts rapid fire stream-of-consciousness regarding patrolling cops like a man possessed. It’s a trippy mix for sure beats resembling deconstructed Donkey Kong soundtracks slotted into dancehall shapes while I Jahbar reaches far and wide to spout speedy rhymes – but it’s goddamn irresistible. This mixtape is far more fun and as fiercely experimental as anything else this column’s covered this year – seek it out however you can.

UK guitarist Stef Ketteringham is a thoroughly visceral improviser, treating his axe and some kickable drums with a physicality periodically approaching contemptuous in terms of aggression. Slip Diff Boogies sees Ketteringham at the height of his game, issuing "13 guitar & percussion instrumentals" of a heightened emotional and physical immediacy shared between the surprisingly similar parallel ale-swilling worlds of noise and folk. Strings twang and curl as Stef lifts and drops them with abandon; the drums and body of the guitar take heavy beatings as Ketteringham fumbles around between melody and rhythms; the floor itself seems to buckle beneath the madness. Between the scrappy madcap improvisations though, lies a heart in love with the blues.

One has to cite Bill Orcutt as a contemporary – an American who’s spent much of the last decade putting his own guitars through similar dire straits in search of the post-punk freeform version of the instrumental guitar blues – but Ketteringham is altogether further down the vortex into atonality and percussiveness. The earsplitting instrumental attacks of Richard Dawson are also not a million miles off perhaps. The thuds of drum and guitar abuse on ‘Slide Tackle Woman’ are imbued with a rawness impossible to fake though, revisited on ‘Slip Diff Boogie 3’, where the ghost of a jittery slide guitar melody gets beaten to pulp by Ketteringham’s furious extremities. Elsewhere though, the likes of ‘Coming Off 3’ soften the blow and yearn with zither-like tenderness, while ‘Dawn Raid’ is the closest to a composition, taking its time to feel around an awkward and creepy little tune. The tape closes with a strange live jam recorded in London’s New River Studios with two drummers (including Big Lad’s Henri Grimes) an electric pianist, and a bassist all improvising along with Ketteringham as best they can. Stef Kett’s extrapolation of folk, blues, and noise is a compelling and necessary contribution, speaking a musical language well known to freaks of all cuts.

The first compilation by low-key international tape label Canigou Records stays true to its identity, bringing together tracks by a host of artists operating within the wispy boundaries of ‘ambient’. It’s an excellent showcase of what’s going one in some pretty far flung corners of the underground, featuring musicians from Tallinn, Estonia; Puebla, Mexico; and Córdoba, Argentina alongside Londoners, a Málagan, a Norwegian and an Aussie. The compositional skill level of the musicians on display is eye-opening, giving the compilation that boost to make it more than just a taster and collection that’s both a joy to revisit, and a snapshot of a virtual time and place. AF85 and Perimeter O provide post-vaporwave atmospheres over comfy kick beats, while Liis Ring and Adela Mede sing and hum sketched out songs inside vaporous reverb chambers. David Cordero from Cádiz, Spain samples clanging and turns it into a bobbing seaside of chiming tones. Welsh musician Warbler provides perhaps the highlight with ‘Cwmyoy’, a three-minute crescendo ode to coastal beauty and ebbing waves.

Contours is a perfect time capsule for the ambient scene in 2019. It captures the genre at the moment it disappears from the grasps of a certain generation and enters a new realm full of fresh variety and possibility. It sees delicate emotion, natural beauty, artificial space, and a host of artists (including many non-male and non-white) all coalescing and pushing the genre finally somewhere further forward.

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